Recently, a friend asked what I thought about the “dearth of strong female characters” in this summer’s movies, thinking that I’d be ready to join her rage against the bigoted Hollywood machine.
She had a point, this summer’s lineup had a noticeable lack of films starring females. And, as Amanda Dobbins points out in her examination of summer movies since 1989, this isn’t a new trend.
But this summer—as has been noted several places—featured a particular lack of prominent female characters. Man of Steel. Iron Man 3. World War Z. The Lone Ranger. The Fast and Furious 6. The Hangover Part III. Star Trek Into Darkness. After Earth. In all these and many others, women were not only not the point; they weren’t even particularly necessary to the plot (with the notable exception of Gwyneth Paltrow’s character in Iron Man 3).
There’s a little Hollywood film trick called the Bechdel Test, and it’s gaining popularity as a way to measure how seriously women are taken in the film. The rules of the test are simple. In order to pass, the movie must (1) have at least two named women in it who (2) talk to each other and they must (3) talk to each other about something besides a man. It sounds simple, but the list of movies that do not qualify is jaw-dropping. For example, of the above movies, only Iron Man 3 gets an unqualified pass.
So Hollywood certainly has a dearth of female characters, but I did meet many wonderful, strong female characters this summer through other forms of media.
I had read three books the week my friend brought up the movie discussion—more than 1,000 pages of can’t-put-down goodness. And these books—along with many of the ones I’ve read this summer—contain female characters so strong, I can’t shake their grip from my mind.
Not that I want to shake the strong women from Sharon Garlough Brown’s Sensible Shoes or in Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette or in Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. And the strong women in Shades of Mercy, the novel I co-wrote with Anita Lustrea, have sunk so deep, their strength is part of me.
So though it may very well be true that Hollywood continues to dish out women characters with little depth or complexity or awe-inspiring characteristics, this doesn’t mean the world itself is devoid of them.
We should certainly voice our desire for change in Hollywood’s depiction of female characters. But I can’t help but wonder if we’d do better to spend less time grumbling about the depth that isn’t there and instead get down to the business of pointing to the depth that is there, that runs rampant through this world in all sorts of ways.
We can do this by noticing and celebrating female strength in creative endeavors. We need to open our eyes to the wide variety of strong female characters in art: in novels, in memoir, in essays and in the women who write them; in songs and in songwriters; in paintings and in painters; in dance and dancers; in sculpture and sculptors; in recipes and in chefs; in quilts and quilters, for heaven’s sake.
Strong women are everywhere—especially if we’re willing to broaden our understanding of strength, even pushing it beyond its worldly definitions to its Jesus-y ones. Especially if we’re willing to look to the Bible to see them, to see strong women as God defines them: women like Ruth and Naomi, desperate but loyal and preserving; women like Mary, young and afraid but faithful and daring; women like Martha and Mary, each good at their own thing, each living in service to Jesus.
When we understand how vast a godly definition of strong is, it’s hard to deny the existence of strong women all around.
That said, when we don’t see them, we have some options.
For one, how about we create them? If you’re a writer, write strong women. Tell these stories. If you’re a painter, paint them. A musician, play them. A dancer, let your muscles be the grace and strength of these women. And if you’re a Hollywood screenwriter, make movies about them.
For another thing, how about we be strong female characters (if you’re a woman) and celebrate strong women (regardless of your gender).
We get so caught up that who we seen on screen or who we read about in movies is what matters in our lives. And it does. To some extent. But when it comes to who we aspire toward or who we want influencing our kids or any younger generation, the real life folks matter most.
The more strength we see—and celebrate—in the women in our real lives, the more we see women standing up for what’s right in the face of retribution, the more we see women living out God’s callings and giftings even when others say they’re wrong or they have no place, the more we see women stretch and grow and dare and experience and push, the more this strength will trickle up and down and into all spheres of life—Hollywood or otherwise. Because there’s only so far we can suspend our disbelief.
Caryn Rivadeneira is a writer, speaker and author of Broke: What Financial Desperation Revealed About GodÕs Abundance (IVP, 2014). Caryn lives in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband, three kids and rescued pit bull. For more on Caryn, visit carynrivadeneira.com.